Thin Places: A Reflection on Genesis 28:10-22
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thin places we sometimes call them, places where the veil between heaven and earth is gossamer, or where the curtain is pulled back a bit and the audience sees the stage manager at work. I have no deep theology of such places, but I do have deep appreciation and even reverence for them. I have experienced thin places, and I have the witness of Scripture and the saints to testify about them. They are foretastes of the new heaven and new earth — of heaven and earth as they were always intended to be — where,
“…the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3).
Scripture is adorned with thin places from beginning to end, from the Garden to new Jerusalem. The LORD was once accustomed to walk in the Garden with the man and his wife — Adam and Eve — in the cool of the day, at the intersection of heaven and earth, the first thin place. After sin had thickened the veil and the earth had become more opaque to heaven, the men of Shinar tried to create a thin place of their own by building a city and tower with its top in the heavens (cf Gen 11:1-9). They learned too late that heaven is a locked door that may be opened only from the inside, that only God makes places thin and his presence known. Abram found thin places all along his sojourn, often in groves of terebinths: the oaks of Moreh or the oaks of Mamre. For Moses it was mountaintops: Horeb/Sinai and Pisgah. For Jacob, it was Luz, a Canaanite village.
Jacob was on the run, fearful for his life. And rightly so: he had schemed and lied and stolen both birthright and blessing from his elder brother Esau — things which the Lord would have given him justly in God’s own good time. Esau had his own justice in mind, perhaps after the death of their father Isaac. So, Jacob was sent away, ostensibly to find a wife from among his mother’s kin in the old country, but really to give Esau time to cool down. One day, as the sun set, Jacob neared Luz, and, weary from his journey, he bedded down for the night. Little did he know that he slept in a thin place.
Genesis 28:12–17 (ESV): 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jacob’s thin place: there will be others, like the Jabbok River — but this, Jacob’s first thin place, offered an unparalleled vision of God and the conveyance of the covenant. What the men of Shinar had hoped to erect — a tower to heaven — God showed Jacob, a ladder set on earth reaching to heaven, connecting heaven and earth, God making himself known and accessible. Angels ascended and descended the ladder, mediating between God and man.
Now, come forward in the story some two millennia, to a descendant of Jacob.
John 1:43–51 (ESV): 43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
And there it is, the allusion to Jacob’s thin place, the fulfillment of Jacob’s vision. As it turns out, the thinnest of thin places, the thin place where God is most present to man, is not a place at all, but a person: Jesus of Nazareth. He is the ladder connecting heaven and earth, the one ministered to by angels ascending and descending. He is the one through whom God makes himself known, the one through whom God fulfills the old covenant and conveys the new covenant. He is the intersection of heaven and earth; in his person divinity and humanity inhere.
Jacob’s words upon waking are significant:
Genesis 28:16–17 (ESV): 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
With how much more reverence, awe, and fear we should come into the presence of Jesus: not just the house of God, not just the gate of heaven, not just a thin place between God and man, but Emmanuel, God with us. How we should rejoice to draw near those thin places where Christ draws near to us: in Scripture, the Word written; in the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ made present and attended by angels and archangels ascending and descending; in the deepest place of the redeemed human heart where the Spirit of Christ dwells; in the Church, the very body of Christ; in the least of our brothers and sisters — the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the prisoners — those with whom Christ explicitly identifies. Beloved, thin places abound, and we do not have to travel to find them. God traveled to us:
John 1:14 (ESV): 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
This lies near the heart of the Gospel: that God became the thin place, that God destroyed all barriers that separated man from his presence, and that he did so in the person of his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
One last point, one implication of all this. Having encountered God in Christ, we are now to become the thin places for the world.
Matthew 5:14–16 (ESV): 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Is that not a description of a thin place, a place where the light of God shines into the darkness of the world, so that the world might both see the glory of God and give glory to God? Do we not want the world to look upon the Church and upon all who bear the name of Christ and say in wonder: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it”?
How blessed we are to have seen Christ, the thin place of God, and to become thin places to his honor and glory. Amen.